With flu outbreaks reaching epidemic levels, many of us are heeding advice to get a flu shot (it’s not too late) and wash our hands frequently. But there’s another tactic you can employ: good nutrition.
Eating a well-balanced, healthy diet ensures that you take in enough immune-supporting nutrients. Even a small nutritional deficiency can affect the body's ability to stay healthy, said Heather Mangieri, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
So what foods help support your immune system? Mangieri suggests starting with these:
Protein is part of the body’s defense mechanism. Eat a variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meat, poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products and unsalted nuts and seeds.
Vitamin A helps maintain your immune system and helps keep skin and tissues in your mouth, stomach, intestines and respiratory tract healthy. Get this immune-boosting vitamin from sweet potatoes, carrots, kale, spinach, red bell peppers, apricots, milk, eggs or foods labeled vitamin-A fortified, such as milk or cereal.
Vitamin C stimulates the formation of antibodies that support your immune system. Include more of this healthy vitamin in your diet with citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruit and tangerines, or red bell pepper, papaya, strawberries, tomato juice or foods fortified with vitamin C, such as some cereals.
Vitamin E works as an antioxidant to neutralize free radicals and promote immune function. Include vitamin E in your diet with fortified foods, sunflower seeds, almonds, sunflower or safflower oil, hazelnuts, peanut butter or spinach.
Zinc helps the immune system work properly and may help wounds heal. Zinc can be found in lean beef, wheat germ, crab, wheat bran, sunflower seeds, black-eyed peas, almonds, milk and tofu.
Other nutrients including vitamin B6, folate, selenium, iron and copper, as well as prebiotics and probiotics, may influence immune response also. Fortified cereals and whole grains are a good source of these B vitamins and minerals. Yogurt, kefir and buttermilk are good sources of prebiotics and probiotics.
"A strong immune system doesn't guarantee your body can fight off every flu bug, but it is a powerful defense," said Mangieri. "Good nutrition is essential to a strong immune response."
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics